Grace Is Wet – Tom Martin reflects on how water pervades, undergrids, and provides the medium for all life, both physical and spiritual.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (2022, 2025)
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
At the level of human concern we have, for this Sunday, a series of texts linked by marriage imagery. The Gospel story of a marriage celebration at Cana of Galilee and marriage as a metaphor for the salvation of God’s people in Isaiah. The Psalm picks up a connection through feasting and partying. In the ancient world, for many, this was most commonly associated with communal wedding celebrations. Gifting (perhaps marriage gifts) can tie in the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians. In traditional preaching all of this is about people. People relating to God, finding the joy of God’s promised redemption. People becoming God’s bride. But such a homiletic emphasis passes over the rich and varied images of Creation which can easily be brought into the foreground everywhere but in the 1 Corinthians passage.
If one wishes to commit to Creation-Preaching (a useful tool is Leah Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit; Chalice Press, 2015), these are texts that refuse to be bound by anthropocentric concerns and readily leak over into ecological images and truths. From the perspective of Norm Habel’s ecological hermeneutic (see, Readings from the Perspective of Earth, Pilgrim Press, 2000) one can pass quickly from decentering the human application of these texts to a fairly direct recovery of the “earth’s voice.”
My reading of Norman Wirzba’s The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003) is as a call for a new Reformation. His book suggests to me that every sermon in every church for some years should focus on reforming the doctrine of Creation, in much the same way that 500 years ago Protestant preaching reformed the doctrine of soteriology. The Reformers saw preaching centered on indulgences and merit as misguided and inadequate. Flat out wrong. They used scripture and fresh thinking to explore a new doctrine of salvation. Today we need a new doctrine of Creation. The old means of speaking about God and Creation are worn, misguided and, sometimes, flat out wrong. We need to look for new means of preaching Creation; to preach a fresh and radical theological exploration of God and Creation.
In a traditional human-centered view, Isaiah seems to be exclusively concerned with human salvation. That is, until one reaches v. 4. The “land” will no longer be called barren. Here we find a truly ancient conception linking a people’s health to the health of the soil (drawing in Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”). The earth itself is drawn into the celebration as God marries both people and land. This is to stress the phrase at the end of v. 4, “your land shall be married.” Using historical critical methodology it could be argued that this is ‘merely’ a metaphor for the joy of God’s marriage to God’s people. But in an ecological hermeneutic giving voice to the earth’s joy is the objective. God is here pictured as bound not only to people but to Creation, the earth, as well. The redeemed vitality of God’s people is the same as the vitality of a redeemed land. I think of the folk song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” Our corporate identity is bound up with the land we share, our identities are only as healthy as the integrity of the earth on which we live. Since ancient warfare often decimated the ecosystems of conquered peoples, exploration of this line of thought is appropriate. The rejoicing of earth and people flows over into images of marriage. Marriage in ancient culture is an image of, and tied to, the earth’s fecundity. We are bound up with soil in salvation.
Feasting connects Psalm 36 to the theme of marriage. But looking ahead to next Sunday’s use of Psalm 19 (“the cosmos talks of God’s glory”), Psalm 36 also portrays mountains and oceans as telling us about God. Creation is indispensable to our human experience of God. When we ignore what its voice can teach us, we are ignoring God. There are also rich veins to be tapped in the Psalm’s explicit statement that God saves humans and animals. A full soteriology includes animals as a product of the earth. If, as we often do, ask what salvation looks like/does for us now, we must also ask what God’s extension of salvation to animals means for them now. How will endangered species experience the celebration this Psalm portrays? Can we become means of grace for plants, animals, ecosystems? Is it our actions and decisions that God uses to offer salvation to Creation? The Lutheran teaching about Grace complicates this. We tend to be so leery of “works.” But if Creation is to be offered God’s grace in the present moment it will only be because we make God’s grace happen.
It is in the Psalm that I find the focus I would take for a sermon for this Sunday: water. We are invited to “drink from the river” of the delight of God and reminded that God is a “fountain of life.” The focus on water reaches back to the Isaiah passage given that the health of the land and its eschatological future are, in Isaiah, often expressed as water breaking forth in the desert, springs of life emerging in dry places. Water is life. God is life. Water tells us of God. We need its voice. The fountain idea reaches forward to the Gospel text as a Johannine theme. In the story of the woman at the well (John 4:14) Jesus offers living water that will well up to a fountain of eternal life. In the Gospel text this Sunday water is transformed into wine and the living joy of marriage wells up into celebration.
If one insists on using all the lectionary texts (a temptation I usually try to avoid!) then the Corinthians passage can be connected by Spirit-water imagery. Perhaps one reaches ahead to the Nicodemus story with its Spirit-water imagery to make this connection. Water/Spirit is clearly a card John will play with the woman at the well and in the chapter 6 discourse about eating and drinking Jesus.
The sermon then becomes an exploration of how water pervades, undergirds, and provides the medium for all of life, both physical and spiritual. Water quietly, unobtrusively, yet ubiquitously, undergirds everything that happens in the Gospel story. Water has already been the silent provider for the wine which has gone short. Water is what has been foundational to the wedding celebration we are privileged to look in on. Water will then be the foundational medium of Jesus’ first sign. What does Water think about all this?
C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study, suggested that a helpful way to think of most biblical miracles is as God short circuiting established natural processes. God makes wine every day all around the world. God uses natural chemical processes suspended in water to do this. For this wedding celebration God still uses water and the same processes suspended in water to make wine but abbreviates the process to be “miraculous.” I would suggest that a creation sermon will not want to get side-tracked into the miraculous, but rather focus on the universality of water as a means by which God acts in our lives.
I have always loved a song written decades ago by a friend of mine, David Stearman, entitled: “He Turned the Water into Wine.” The song takes the reported miracle as a metaphor for the richness and meaningfulness of life found in Christ. “He is the sparkle in the snow, and the morning light. The very warmth of fire’s glow, on a winter’s night. And when he put his hand in mine, I left the empty life behind, he turned the water into wine.” All of John’s signs lend themselves to this decentering of physical miracle toward the miracle of new life in Jesus. This gospel text in Creation-Preaching challenges us to be inebriated by the very presence of water in our lives, a sign of the presence of Christ with us.
There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which an alien refers to humans as “mostly bags of water.” Water is the pervasive medium by which I exist, by which all life exists. It is the pervasive enabler of chemical processes everywhere. As scientists look for signs of life elsewhere they principally look initially for signs of liquid water.
In Acts 17:28 the author puts the words “in him we live and move and have our being” on the lips of St. Paul. It is a theological common place that God is in, under and through all things. God’s pervasive grace upholds and nurtures life. Water as enabler of life is as pervasive as the grace of God. As God’s grace is found in all things, water, ministering to life, is to be found in all our ecosystems.
We frequently take the pervasive presence of God for granted; ignore the fact of God’s omnipresence. Similarly, we often take advantage of God’s grace (the affirmation of us doing so may be the whole point of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward). Similarly, we take water for granted, we presume upon it and we take advantage of it. But in contrast with the inexhaustible nature of God’s pervasive grace, water is a limited and often fragile part of the created order. Our actions toward water enhance or detract from its life-giving grace.
The statistics on water pollution, the declining availability of potable fresh water, the impacts of global climate change on water sources are easily found. One could also explore the statistics on the justice issues that surround water. Accessibility and pollution are problems that confront poor communities and countries at far greater rates than affluent communities. The decades long failure to replace lead water pipes in Flint, Michigan is one glaring example. The texts challenge us to see that to deny people ready access to clean water is to deny them access to God.
But for preaching there are also current cultural resources as well. It is likely that many congregants will have seen the remake of Dune. The film subtly and expertly gives visual representations to the sacredness and preciousness of water. In the film we see a planetary culture finetuned to water scarcity. We see how fragile ecosystems hang on the preservation of each drop. And, remembering the justice issues surrounding water, it gives visualization to the profligate waste of water by those in power.
For congregations which are open to inter-faith connections in a sermon, Daoism uses water as an illustration of how we should live. Water is our teacher. From its “life” we learn virtues that will enrich our living. Water is non-confrontational. Live as water. Water does not exalt itself, it flows to the lowest places. Live as water. Water is, nevertheless, able to overcome all obstacles. Live as water. I see no reason a Christian preacher shouldn’t explore these ideas for water teaching us about our lives in God.
Water as pervasive grace. Water as a medium of grace we risk destroying. Water teaching us of God. Water calling us to action to preserve its gift of life on this planet.
Originally written by Rev. Dr. Thomas Martin in 2022.